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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The anticipated arrival of nearly 700 Afghan refugees before spring reinforces the need for Iowa communities to find and develop resources for welcoming new residents, speakers told the Growing Rural Iowa Task Force in a virtual meeting Monday.
Although most of those refugees in the first wave of evacuees from Afghanistan are expected to settle in larger cities, such as Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, members of the panel, which is part of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Empower Rural Iowa initiative, are encouraging rural communities to consider their role in the resettlement.
With housing stock challenges, voluntary resettlement organizations like the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants are looking at housing opportunities farther away from urban areas. A rule that usually would limit placement of refugees without family ties to a 50-mile radius of their placement agency has been lifted ahead of Afghan refugee arrivals, giving organizations like the Catherine McAuley Center of Cedar Rapids more leeway in placing new Iowa residents.
“We’re fully aware that housing stock in Cedar Rapids is extremely low after the derecho,” said Sara Zejnic, director of refugee and immigrant services for the center. “We’re trying to balance that support we’re providing to Afghans who are entering our community with knowing there are people who really need housing in our community as it is.”
The issue is particularly acute for large, multigenerational families.
“We can readily find one and two-bedroom apartments, but not a ton of three- and four-bedroom (homes),” said Kerri True-Funk, director of the U.S. committee’s Des Moines field office.
“Welcoming has many layers,” said Himar Hernandez, a community development specialist from Iowa State University. “The perception we have may not match the reality for somebody coming from another community.”
Hernandez emphasized the need for providing diversity, equity and inclusion resources for communities that are experiencing changing demographics. Communities often lack those resources to create welcoming and inclusive environments for new populations, he said.
In some cases, Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg added, small towns’ greatest strengths can be a weakness in assimilating new residents. Among the strengths is the sense that everyone knows and cares about everyone else, he said.
“That presents a challenge for somebody who comes in from the outside, doesn’t know everybody and hasn’t known everybody forever,” Gregg said. “They feel like they are entering a conversation that’s been ongoing for years and don’t quite know how to step into that.”
One approach is a concierge program in Ottumwa, he said, that helps new residents connect to a church, a local organization or any group that has a common interest “so they become a part of the inner circle that is such an asset in small-town America.”
That’s not always easy, said Henny Ohr, executive director of Embarc, which helps refugees from Myanmar, formerly Burma, settle in Iowa. The Burmese refugees come from many tribes and speak 32 languages. Embarc is working with Burmese in Columbus Junction and Storm Lake, where immigrants often are recruited to fill jobs in meatpacking.
Making them feel welcome as a part of the community pays dividends, Ohr said, because newcomers will then recruit family and friends to join them. In Iowa, a minority of immigrants come directly from their native country, while the vast majority come from other states — often for a job.
Sandy Ehrig of the Iowa Rural Development Council, and co-chair of the task force, suggested the panel collaborate with the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and Iowa Business Council, which have similar initiatives.
“Maybe that will blossom into another kind of track around what are the goals for the community from the employer standpoint as well as the community standpoint,” she said.
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Elijah Decious of The Gazette contributed to this report.